Film Review: The Servant

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Harold Pinter

Director: Joseph Losey

Hitchcock may have perfected the director’s cameo, but in Joseph Losey’s The Servant it is Harold Pinter who appears as an extra in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurant scene. Adapting Robin Maugham’s novel, Pinter and Losey’s seminal film earns a 4K cinema, DVD and Blu-Ray re-release, and nearly 60-years on it is looking better than ever in its newly restored format. A masterpiece of 60s filmmaking, everything from shot selection to performances and John Dankworth’s score are in service to Losey’s slow-burn sinister vision.

Before moving into his new house in Chelsea, Tony hires a manservant to tend to his every need. Part butler, part housekeeper, Barrett soon has the household running smoothly, much to the chagrin of Tony’s fiancée Susan who resents the presence of a third party. As Barrett uses his indispensability to take over his master’s life, Tony soon spirals out of control as he comes under the influence of his servant.

The style is classic Pinter; a stranger first disrupts then dominates a domestic space creating a vital shift in power and a co-dependency between the characters that becomes entirely claustrophobic. The absorption and even destruction of the upper classes by the working-class characters feels like a pointed political statement and the whole film retains its fresh, intimidating power.

Losey’s movie looks as glorious as ever in this new restoration, a tale of manipulation and coercion that unites style and substance effortlessly. The Servant’s sinister feel is both instantly recognisable and incredibly skilled as it creates a wintry opener, a cosy impression that Losey gives the early scenes as Barrett builds a home for Tony, taking control of everything from meal preparation to interior deisgn.

Soon the tone shifts to something far more unnerving, even immoral. The way Losey slowly introduces low camera angles, reflective surfaces and the fish-eye mirror, as well as perspective shots that frame actors in lit doorways and through obstacles is extraordinarily evocative, finding those dark undertones that reference noir and Hitchcock but with a style all their own.

Part of the frame-by-frame restoration emphasises the sound accents that support Dankworth’s brassy composition. The intrusive and ever-ringing telephone, clock chimes and a dripping tap create a fascinating soundscape that add to the off-kilter feeling, creating moments of tension that increase as the story unfolds.

James Fox’s Tony slowly loses control of his own life, the commanding presence and busy social life are gradually chipped away as Tony accepts the convenience of having all his needs catered to. Fox is particularly impressive in the later stages when the now haggard and disorientated Tony has completely broken down, all power relinquished to his true master.

In one of his finest performances, Dirk Bogarde is hard to read as Barrett, his motivation and ultimate purpose elusive. What begins as a deferential character soon adopts a shameless and brutal Pinteresque masculinity, exploiting the hold he has over Tony, and Bogarde’s pivotal performance bristles with a victorious bravado.

Celebrating Bogarde’s centenary, The Servant is a cinematic landmark, filmed with experimental techniques and craft that bring suspense and danger to the screen, and a rare moment when story, camerawork, sound and performances came together perfectly.

The Servant opens in cinemas on 10 September and on 4K UHD Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on 20 September

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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